Thursday, 29 December 2011

Belated happy birthday, Mr Cooper

My intention had been to post this three days ago, but I’ve been away from wireless electronic media.

26 December 2011 was the eighty-third birthday of Martin Cooper.

Hurrah! Martin who?

Well, he led the R&D team at Motorola in the late 1960s and early 1970s that developed the mobile phone. The inspiration for the idea, Cooper has said, came from watching Captain Kirk communicate on Star Trek. “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Not so well-known, nor so well-off, I guess, as Steve Jobs.

But what a world-changing achievement!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Back to the Five Bells

After a trip last week to see my academic supervisor at Goldsmiths in New Cross, I walked down to the Old Kent Road ‒ to the Five Bells pub.

My brother David and I, together with a small gang of friends, used to go there to drink beer and to hear the live music. It was 1964ish, so you can imagine what kind of sounds they were.

The pub was always packed and the regular house band stoked up a storm. Mostly the feeling was of shared bonhomie. At least, that’s how I recall it. They made a big impression on me, and certainly had an influence on my own style of performing in subsequent years.

The Five Bells is much as it was nearly fifty years ago, but there doesn’t seem to be any live music there these days. The stage is still in its place (above), but no one plays on it any more.

It seemed such an adventure in the ′60s, to drive down to deepest New Cross in South-East London on a dark winter’s evening, across the river from Kensington, where we were living in genteel poverty at the time.

Little did I know then that I would spend so many years living just a short way up the hill in lovely Blackheath.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Sort of Christmas Card (2)

Last year it was TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”.

This year, something much closer to home by Thomas Hardy.

And it feels right for us, living as we do, surrounded by livestock on the edge of our village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.

Written during the First World War, Hardy recalls a Wessex folk tradition that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cattle kneel.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Faith, mingled with doubt, and the wish to cling to childhood certainties.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

(Portrait photograph of Thomas Hardy by H Walter Barnett, c1909.)

Sunday, 18 December 2011


My colleague from City University, Kristine Karlson/Pitt, has written recently about the need to unlearn some things, making room for the new.

And, when I was looking for the right place to do my doctorate studies, a distinguished professor suggested that I would have to unlearn everything I knew about the subject. Since I had been studying it for several decades, this sounded pretty daunting to me – and not a bit enticing.

The question is: how do we unlearn things? Is it possible?

Certainly the human brain does not have a delete function in the way that computers do. Of course, we seem very able to delete data efficiently with the onset of dementia, but in that situation the learn function seems to be impaired equally.

So presumably what we do in reality is overlay old learning with new learning. The problem being that the old stuff can be hooked in there more tenaciously.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Are ideas born in start-ups?

Where is it that new ideas are born? In large companies or small?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that creativity flourishes in small organisations – and that big new ideas emerge mainly in entrepreneurial start-ups.

It may well be true that new ideas see the light of day in start-up companies. The question is: were the ideas actually conceived there?

Some years ago I saw a presentation at a conference from Aston University, whose research showed that ideas were often conceived in large organisations, where they had been either suppressed, or rejected, or simply hidden, before being brought to market by breakaway staffers.

This is certainly a syndrome that I’ve observed frequently. What’s more – it has happened to me personally, a wonderful new business being born.

A very successful example is Innocent Drinks. They tell the story on their website.

The learnings?

Here are a couple of them. In large organisations, it behoves leaders to think twice before rejecting or suppressing the ideas of their more creative colleagues. And for governments, it might be good to re-think their assumptions concerning the sources of new ideas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Christopher Logue RIP

I see that the English poet, Christopher Logue, has died (3 December, aged 85). I wrote about this brief verse of his in a previous blog (27/10/2009):

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew…

Usually it is attributed to the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. I could never understand why this is so. And then, one day, in a second-hand bookshop in York, I fell into conversation with the owner, who knew Logue.

This is what he told me. Logue had been commissioned to write the words for a poster for an exhibition of Apollinaire’s work. Being a literary magpie, in this case he took a stanza from a lengthy poem of his own (published in New Numbers in 1969) and used it on the poster.

So from thenceforth, it became part of Apollinaire’s public heritage, repeated constantly on the net. How ironic that is, given that Logue stole from all and sundry throughout his career.

Christopher Logue is perhaps best remembered now for his version for radio of Homer’s Iliad, which was published and broadcast over many years from its commission by the BBC’s Third Programme in 1959. This is a brief passage from Part One, War Music:

The battle swayed.
Half-naked men hacked slowly at each other
As the Greeks eased back the Trojans.
They stood close;
Closer; thigh in thigh; mask twisted over iron mask
Like kissing.

Dramatic stuff!

Monday, 12 December 2011

The teacher who changed my life

A few years ago I gave a talk in London on “100 Years of Macbeth Recordings”, Verdi that is.

The audience for the talk, mainly gents (and a few ladies) older than me, and very expert in the history of recordings and opera and singers, were not to be impressed by my knowledge of (and insights regarding) Verdi. But they understood pretty quickly that I had a good grasp of the play and of how Verdi had gone about reshaping and compressing it for the lyric stage.

It was only later that I realised that my love of Macbeth started much earlier, with GS Braddy’s production at Uppingham School in 1957. Not having any performing role in that, I studied the text privately, and knew it well by the time of the performances. I was thirteen.

Later I had the good luck to be in Gordon Braddy’s English literature class. We studied Bernard Shaw’s St Joan and Shakespeare’s Henry V. I can’t think that Braddy himself can have been very inspired by Saint Joan. (I certainly was left with no great love for Shaw’s wordy pontifications.) But Henry V stays with me, illuminated by that inspiring man. And Shakespeare since those days has been a constant presence in my life.

Many of his pupils have referred to Braddy’s treatment of boys as his equals. I feel sure that this was an illusion, but one which is at the heart of so much great teaching.

One day, under the spell of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1958 (was I the only one?), I wrote a pseudo-drug-filled pastiche which Braddy read out in full to the class in his best American-poetic voice. Although he had not himself read Kerouac, he sensed fundamentally what it was. I was overjoyed.

In due course I escaped from the cloistered, for me repressive, world of Uppingham. The piece I took with me was Gordon Braddy.

Does everyone have such an influence in their life?

(Above: Margherita Grandi as Lady Macbeth, photo by Angus McBean.)

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Listening and Creativity

At the start of innovation workshops, I ask the participants to come up with some groundrules for working together productively and creatively.

Usually second on the emerging shortlist is LISTENING.

Prompted, the person proposing it will often say how important it is to pay attention to what others are saying, both during any presentations and in the course of discussion.

It’s often comes as something of a shock when I add to this item that it’s important to listen to oneself. In fact, in sessions where the point is to tap into our creative selves, it’s more important, much more important, than listening to others.

In this situation, what others say is valuable primarily not as information, but as stimulus – to help us to trigger new thoughts, new perspectives, new ideas. Never more so than during a long, fact-filled presentation.

As usual, Mark Twain (above) caught this brilliantly: “Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings,” he wrote. “It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.”

The challenge, of course is not only to listen closely to that storm of thoughts, but also to catch plenty of them on the wing. For me, that means making brief notes as they flash by. And then reviewing them consistently for further consideration and development.

Richard Branson once told me that he does this every day( see blogpost 03/11/2009). And so do I!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

La vie de bohème

Poking around my dissertation (which is on Australasian musicians, writers and artists who came to Europe in the fin-de siècle), I’ve recently read two seminal novels on the Bohemian movement – Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème and George du Maurier’s Trilby.

The former is set in 1840s Paris. The latter in Paris and London in the following decade. Both deal with artists living the Art for Art’s Sake ideal. But there the similarity ends.

Murger’s Bohemians are young, uninhibited, penniless and witty. Most of du Maurier’s are rich and high-born, merely pretending to be the real thing ‒ and there’s not a skerrick of wit between them. Murger’s prose bounds along joyfully, where du Maurier’s is lumpen.

Of course, La vie de bohème was written and published when the movement was young, whereas Trilby was composed in retrospect in the 1890s, fifty years later, embracing prudish late-Victorian values. Irritatingly, in Trilby du Maurier denounces “bourgeois” values and “philistines”, while managing to be consistently both of these.

My sense is that, although Trilby is still widely read, the lead character Svengali well-known, Murger’s Bohemia is only recognised these days as the book behind Puccini’s still very popular opera. Cordially recommended.

I know that there were diluted versions of Bohemia in London, Sydney and Melbourne. But how about New York, Vienna, Berlin, Milan and elsewhere?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Getting to grips with Art

Walking through the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris (with its fabulous collection of Monets (above), Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Derains, Picassos etc) together with a friend some years ago, I was astonished when he completed his inspection in less than five minutes. “Oh, yes,” he announced. “Seen 'em all.”

Recent research confirms that visitors to art museums spend just a few seconds looking at each painting. Most people then take considerably longer reading the information labels. Not my friend.

I wonder why it is that people really don’t take the time to look at the works of art themselves.

The process that I use started when I began to teach myself something about art history some four decades ago. I was working at the time at Saatchi & Saatchi in Charlotte Street and could interrupt my twenty minute walk back to Charing Cross Station (on my way home) by dropping into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This I did most working days.

Each visit I would look at just three paintings: the one I had studied yesterday, the one which was to be the main focus for today, and the one that I would turn to tomorrow. So, over time, each painting presented three substantial opportunities for me to look (and to think) – about composition, colour, light, brushwork, subject, idea, intention, context and so on.

It gave me the possibility of beginning to understand, accompanied (it goes without saying) by one of the finest collections of Western art in the world. And it was the start of a lifetime of looking at paintings.

Not sure one can achieve that with just a glance.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

“Gradually, then suddenly”

I came across this phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Narelle Hanratty’s blog. And it occurs to me that so many discoveries and inventions happen this way - gradually, then suddenly.

A good example is the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in the early 1950s. I wrote about the way that they battled with this fundamental problem (20 December 2009), together with Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins and others, over a long period of time, and how quite suddenly one day the sun rose - and the answer was clear.

“The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” wrote Watson, describing the Eureka moment in his exciting book, The Double Helix.

Of course an analogy in animal life is the gestation of foetuses followed by the birth of the young.

Have you noticed examples of this in your innovation work and elsewhere?